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Victims of Hamas suicide bombers demand Iranian antiquities from US museums in compensation for injuries

Terrorist attacks in Jerusalem which killed five and injured hundreds were executed with funding from Iran—say plaintiffs in several lawsuits

In a bold series of lawsuits, victims of an allegedly Iranian-sponsored bombing in Jerusalem are suing US museums, seeking antiquities which they say belong to Iran. In court filings in Massachusetts and Illinois, the victims are arguing that the art can be seized to satisfy a lower court judgment against Iran for compensation for their injuries. The museums are arguing that the art cannot be claimed, either because it does not belong to Iran, or because it is exempt under the federal procedural rule that bars suit against foreign nations in the US.

The case originates in a grizzly, triple-suicide bombing at a Jerusalem shopping mall in September 1997, in which bombs, sharp objects and chemicals killed five people and injured 200 others, including Jenny Rubin and seven other US students. The Palestinian organisation Hamas claimed responsibility.

In 2001, the victims, including some who are not involved in the museum lawsuits, sued Iran and Iranian officials in federal court in Washington, DC, on the theory that Iran had supplied funds to Hamas. In September 2003, they won without a trial, because Iran did not appear in or respond to the lawsuit. The court awarded $423.5m in damages to the victims and their families. While Iran would otherwise be immune from lawsuit in the US as a sovereign nation, the court said, under an anti-terrorism exception, Iran could be sued in cases of death or injury resulting from state-supported terrorism.

After collecting some money on the judgment by seizing and selling a house in Texas, Ms Rubin and others represented by attorney David J. Strachman of MacIntyre, Tate, Lynch & Holt of Providence, Rhode Island, turned their attention to Iranian antiquities at US museums.

In a lawsuit in Illinois, Ms Rubin is seeking antiquities which were acquired from several sources by the Oriental Institute (OI) of the University of Chicago. Some art at the OI, both parties to the suit agree, belongs to Iran, and is on loan to the OI. Ms Rubin also alleges that other art at the OI belongs to Iran under Iran’s 1930 antiquities ownership law, on a theory that the university acquired it from its former employee Ernst Herzfeld, an archaeologist who excavated Persepolis in Persia, and who, the plaintiffs allege, removed the art without authorisation. Regarding the Herzfeld collection, the OI says the plaintiffs are “spinning stories about rumoured thefts of unspecified artifacts in the 1930s and 40s”. But with respect to all art claimed to be owned by Iran in its possession, the OI argues that even with the terrorism exception to the sovereign immunity law, the assets of a foreign nation remain exempt from attachment in US courts, and therefore, no antiquities can be seized.

Ms Rubin is simultaneously suing the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, seeking pottery which the Field purchased from Herzfeld in 1945. The Field steadfastly replies that it acquired the Herzfeld artifacts lawfully, and that it owns no property belonging to Iran. To avoid the “incredible expense” that would be involved in any trial over its acquisition of the antiquities, the museum is also raising the immunity defence.

In a blow to the museums, in December 2005, US Magistrate Judge Ashman, of the federal district court in Chicago, ruled that only Iran could assert Iran’s sovereign immunity defenses that might protect the antiquities. Any other result would let third parties interfere with the decisions of a foreign sovereign, the magistrate said; for example, “Iran may prefer” to use the art at the Chicago museums to pay the judgment, rather than other property it owns. The museums are asking the court to disregard the magistrate’s ruling. In their support, the US State Department has filed a “statement of interest” opposing the lawsuit, saying that the ruling threatens US foreign policy interests, and that Judge Ashman “abused his discretion” by not requiring Ms Rubin to prove that she is entitled to the antiquities.

In Massachusetts, the plaintiffs are seeking to collect on their judgment by trying to claim antiquities at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) and the Harvard University Art Museums (HUAM). But the museums have asked the court to dissolve the lawsuit. Harvard has no Iranian antiquities belonging to Iran, it says, and if it did, the attachment provision of the sovereign immunity law would bar the lawsuit. In order for any Iranian antiquities in the US to be claimed, they would have to be used in a “commercial activity” in the US by Iran, and at Harvard, they are not, Harvard says. The MFA is basically arguing the same thing. The plaintiffs must do more than allege “on information and belief” that the museum’s Persian and Iranian antiquities “may” be owned by Iran, the MFA says.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Victims of Hamas suicide bombers are claiming Iranian antiquities in US museums'